The Lebanese judge investigating the devastating Beirut port blast resumed work on Tuesday after lawsuits filed by politicians interrupted the probe for the third time.
Lebanese activists say the politicians are stalling the investigation by launching a flurry of baseless allegations against Tarek Bitar, the special investigator currently leading the probe.
The decision to resume the investigation comes after weeks of tension between the judiciary and Lebanon’s political parties, which rule the country along sectarian lines. Families of victims of the blast, which killed at least 215 people, widely pin the blame on politicians, who refuse to be interrogated by Mr Bitar for their role in the tragedy.
The Beirut Court of Appeal on Tuesday rejected a recusal request against Mr Bitar — a legal allegation that a judge has a conflict of interest and cannot preside over an investigation.
The request was filed by Youssef Fenianos, who was public works minister between 2016 and 2020, on October 26, reported Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda on Twitter.
At the time, Mr Fenianos’ lawsuit had been assigned to judge Nassib Elia, head of the Court of Cassation’s Chamber 12. Mr Elia failed to immediately notify Mr Bitar of the lawsuit, a move that in such cases leads to the probe being suspended. Mr Elia asked Mr Fenianos to discuss the court's jurisdiction instead, Legal Agenda said.
In early October, the court had already rejected lawsuits filed by two ex-ministers, Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil, against Mr Bitar, saying that it lacked jurisdiction, and fined both the maximum penalty of 800,000 Lebanese pounds ($465) for wasting court time.
On October 28, Mr Fenianos filed a recusal request against Mr Elia. The head of the Court of Appeal assigned judge Habib Mezher on November 2 to examine the lawsuit. But Mr Mezher, in a widely decried move, took over both cases – Mr Fenianos’ recusal requests against Mr Bitar and against Mr Elia. This allowed Mr Mezher to notify Mr Bitar of the lawsuit against him. As a result, the probe was suspended for a third time on November 4.
In addition to rejecting Mr Fenianos’ lawsuit against Mr Bitar, the Court of Appeal on Tuesday reversed Mr Mezher’s decision to inform Mr Bitar of Mr Fenianos’ recusal request, thereby allowing the investigation to continue.
Mr Mezher's move was illegal because he had no right to be looking into it in the first place, legal experts say. The court suspended Mr Mezher from Mr Bitar's case on November 9. Shortly after his suspension, activists stormed the Palace of Justice and heckled Mr Mezher.
The investigation had previously been paused from October 12 to October 14 after a request for Mr Bitar's recusal jointly filed by Mr Khalil and Mr Zeaiter at Beirut's Court of Cassation, said lawyer Ghida Frangieh from Legal Agenda.
It was paused again from September 27 to October 4 after another recusal request filed by former interior minister Nohad Machnouk at the Court of Appeals. All the lawsuits were rejected.
Politicians' repeated pushbacks against the investigation have polarised the country and caused armed clashes on October 14 in which six people were killed.
Mr Zeaiter and Mr Khalil succeeded in removing Mr Bitar's predecessor, Fadi Sawan, from the investigation last February, accusing him of bias. The two former ministers belong to the same political party, Amal, an ally of one of the country's most influential parties, Iran-backed Hezbollah. Ministers belonging to the party-cum-militia have boycotted government meetings since October 12, effectively paralysing the Cabinet.
The Lebanese judiciary is under intense pressure from politicians, who play an important role in choosing the country’s top judges.
Mr Mezher was recently appointed a member of the high judicial council, a body that administrates the judicial system. Local media reports allege that he was chosen after consultation between Justice Minister Henry Khoury and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Mr Berri’s political party, Amal, and Hezbollah have publicly criticised Mr Bitar’s investigation, and called for the Lebanese Parliament to take over the probe with a special court dedicated to ministers and presidents.
But this court has not made a single ruling since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and activists believe the request is an attempt for politicians to protect each other from responsibility for the blast, which was caused by years of unsafe storage of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate.
Marianna Fadoulian, the head of an association of families of victims of the explosion, described the series of lawsuits as an attempt to buy time by Lebanon’s ruling class. “By wasting time, they get to put more pressure on families and on the judiciary,” she told The National. “They have created huge problems among judges. What did they to Habib Mezher was a political game.”
Despite repeated refusals by the judiciary to remove him from the probe, she said she feared that politicians would continue manoeuvring against Mr Bitar. “We know they’ll continue filing lawsuits. We’ll just have the same problem all over again."